Fan Disservice, by David Bax
I imagine that lots of Jane Austen fans already have their calendars marked for the release of Jerusha Hess’s Austenland in theaters. If I’m fortunate enough to have any such persons reading this before that date, please allow me to give them a warning. Proceed with caution. I’m not sure the makers of this movie give a damn about you at all.
Keri Russell plays Jane Hayes (Oh, my God, her name is Jane just like the author!), an office worker and Austenhead who is a single and lonely thirtywhatever-year-old. She decides to blow her life’s savings on a one week trip to Austenland, a fully immersive getaway in which she’ll spend the entire time living the life of a Jane Austen heroine, complete with a manufactured love story.
Perhaps it’s because Comic-Con is still so large in my rearview mirror but I was eager to delve into the crevices of such a specific fandom. Hess and co-screenwriter Shannon Hale – upon whose book the film is based – do not share my eagerness. In fact, they seem rather turned off at the idea of serious Jane Austen fans, so much so that Jane is the only character in the movie who seems to have any real knowledge of her works, including the other attendees at the resort (Camp? Experience?).
We are fortunate, at least, that Russell does seem to care. Though her character may be weak-willed and demure (at least, initially), the actor’s presence is forceful enough that we are at least able to take the lead more seriously than the movie does. Russell is so winning and – in the film’s best scene, where she practices her English accent – so utterly charming that I longed to see her in an actual Austen adaptation.
Jennifer Coolidge, on the other hand, is the film’s most regrettable presence. I hesitate to blame Coolidge herself, however. Things being the way they are in contemporary comedies, she is just another performer afflicted with the curse of the improviser. It would appear that whenever Hess couldn’t think of an actual joke (which is often), he simply decided to cut to Coolidge doing or saying something bawdy. It doesn’t even have time to get old before it gets old.
Finally worth mentioning is JJ Feild – he of the infuriatingly spelled name – who plays one of Jane’s two romantic interests (the other is Bret McKenzie from Flight of the Conchords). As the film’s Darcy surrogate, Feild understands what his role should be and does his best to form something out of a character who’s about as well written as the jokes are.
When Russell and Feild are together, we get hints of Austenland’s potential as a skewed, modern-day version of a Jane Austen story. Unfortunately, Hess and company weren’t nearly as interested in Austen as they were in a thousand other boring romantic comedies.